In her fireside chat from Chequers, Theresa May spoke with typically unconscious irony. But she surely right when she said people expect political parties to work together to solve Brexit. Such a pity it took her nearly three years to realise it, although whether an earlier epiphany would have produced a Brexit consensus I very much doubt. I suspect a cliff hanger was always on the cards and a breakup of the parties may happen yet.
The fact is these days the two main UK parties are pretty frail organisms, with dwindling membership prone to entryism, Trotskyite with a European flavour for Momentum into Labour, English nativist UKIP or the even further right into the Conservatives. Old loyalties by class or interest eroded in favour of floating voting, in very different directions first towards Thatcher and then Blair. Their dominance supported by large majorities created a false – or at any rate temporary – impression of a consensus. It is perhaps no accident that these two very different prime ministers once thought of as saviours, became hate figures to many. It was first the credit crunch recession which exposed the growth of the disaffected. This wider range of people suffered and are still suffering by more than a decade of flat or declining earnings, extending from the queues for food banks to deep into “just about managing” middle class. And no end is in sight.
For me the surprise lies not in the numbers of disaffected but in the conclusion of the Hansard society’s report that as many as three in ten people still consider themselves ” a fairly strong supporter of a political party” in Great Britain. Perhaps the real disconnect lies between politicians who deeply care about their party as if their lives depended on it, and the majority who barely think about politics except as the default when they come to vote – if they actually do. Time and again the public has shown its exasperation with the party battle , as they’re doing today in all those facile “why don’t they just get on with it” cries. These reactions are fundamentally dissociative rather than considered. They underrate the importance of what’s at stake and the sheer difficulty of reaching agreement.
It’s no surprise at all that 75 per cent of people think the main political parties are so divided within themselves they cannot serve the best interests of the country. Only three in ten people say they have confidence in MPs (34 per cent) and political parties (29 per cent) to act in the public interest, well below the confidence levels recorded for the military (74 per cent), judges (69 per cent) and civil servants (49 per cent).
No doubt wisely the society is not yet prescribing remedies. The problem is that the time for constitutional reform never seems right. The eye of the storm is the wrong time to install a new navigation system for the ship of state ; and if it makes it into port, attention is diverted to the next big thing.
An intense debate over Brexit in which parliament challenged the executive would have been healthy even inspiring had it begun three years ago; and it may yet prove to less damaging to politics in the end if the EU show forbearance and parliament, a final willingness to decide.
The Hansard society records a longing for a strong leader I hope will be disappointed, if that means a prime minister with a dogmatic approach. There is thank God, no British equivalent of a military leader like de Gaulle nor any need for one. Wellington was PM for only two years and had become a civilianised figure long before. The precedent of Cromwell is not a generally happy one. This is not a time for Churchillian heroics. Somehow judging from how he handled the 1975 Common Market referendum I feel Harold Wilson would never have got us into this .But at least we have an elder statesman still in harness in the person of Ken Clarke.
We need time to allow a result to crystallise and for those who dislike it to to accept it. Patience is the quality needed today after this frantic gallop to an imposed deadline. In Thought for Today on Radio 4 this morning Bishop James Jones quoted from Rab Butler, a politician who projected the opposite to a strong man image but was far more effective. It was quite startling to learn that Margaret Thatcher used the same quotation in her tribute to Rab on his death in 1982. All the same, the words are very appropriate today:
On the day that Winston Churchill resigned in 1955, Rab wrote to him saying:
“this time with you has given me … the strength to face all things quietly.”
He ended with the words of St. Augustine:
“Let nothing disturb thee, Let nothing affright thee, All passeth away, God alone will stay, Patience obtaineth all things.”
Fortunately, it’s the quality now called for by the president of the EU Council, Donald Tusk
If not the binary choice looms between No Deal or No Brexit by Revoking Article 50, the options with least support.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London